A common story goes:

Young children love asking 'why', and they often have an earnest curiosity about it that is rare in adults. Something about the process of growing up seems to cause that childlike curiosity to stagnate.

There's a lot of compelling explanations about societal norms that actively stamp out that curiosity (i.e. school training kids to conform and regurgitate facts, parents subtly punishing kids for asking questions, etc). It seems likely to me that these are at least part of the story.

But it also wasn't obvious that they were the whole story. I could easily imagine it also just being the case that small children are optimized for learning and older humans are optimized for doing and the brain automatically shifts away from it. [edit: or that this whole thing is imagined]

Are there any cross-cultural studies that do anything to check how this phenomenon varies, depending on upbringing?

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I have a kiddo whose "why phase" is in full swing and I am not actually confident that it's motivated by curiosity. It's also not the most efficient way to learn things, or even the most efficient simple way (that'd probably be something like "tell me stuff about $TOPIC"), nor is it obviously geared at that goal.

In particular, my kid (I don't know how common this is) will typically formulate his questions by re-grammatizing whatever statement was most recently made in his vicinity ("it's a nice day" "why is it a nice day?" "because it's a good temperature" "why is it a good temperature?"). This will sure keep the conversation going, but:

  • He doesn't retain the information well, sometimes asking the exact same question more than once in a period of just a few minutes, even when the answer isn't complicated compared to things he understands easily.
  • He doesn't seem to care what kind of answer he gets - he will proceed almost identically if the answer to the temperature question above has to do with it having been a similar temperature yesterday, or about the season, or about cloud cover, or if the answer is "I don't know" (he'll ask "why do you don't know").
  • He hasn't noticed any common patterns that end the line of questioning (if he ever asks why he did something, he gets, "I don't know, why did you do that?", but hasn't given up on such questions).
  • Because of how he generates new questions, he can be led around concept-space in whatever way is most convenient for his interlocutor. He doesn't circle back to stuff he's been interested in before except when he's repeating questions he forgot and settling for the same answers as last time verbatim. There isn't a sense, talking to him, that he's aware of the existence of a concept out there he really wants to grasp.

This isn't to say that he isn't curious, but I don't think the "why phase" is strongly related. When he's really interested in learning about something he wants to go interact with it. He also has other language abilities that he seems to use when what he wants really is information, like "I want to talk about it" and non-why-questions. Why questions seem to be just a button-mash for "make the adults talk to me".

This sounds like another circle game that kids like to play.

4mako yass5y
In light of my reply here ("so I guess even children don't know how to ask good questions"), I wonder if they're reaching for something more than answers, maybe my impulse to tell them they shouldn't ask questions they don't really care about the answers to, is actually well placed. Maybe that's the point. Maybe they want to learn about asking questions, and the process can't start to mature until you let them know that they're kind of doing it wrong. (I'm aware that there's a real risk, if this theory is wrong, of making the child explore less freely than they're supposed to, which I will try to hold in regard.)
If we assume it has a purpose.. how does learning work? What needs learning? 1) Theories of how people learn: Repetition. 2) A good way to acquire information in theory: get information from multiple sources, and see what matches up. 3) Some knowledge we might take for granted. Perhaps: what topics are taboo, words, sounds, grammatical structure - we might suppose that knowing how to ask questions (Like where the word why goes in the sentence,) will fall out of this (if they get it wrong, it's an opportunity to find out/be corrected). The process in question doesn't sound super effective (to us): 1) Unless it's optimizing for repetition. 2) Unless it's optimizing for multiple sources of knowledge. 3) Unless it's a way of finding out basic things we take for granted, or what's taboo.
3mako yass5y
Why would any working cognitive process require repetition? The feeling I get when I see that is that the process doesn't know enough about what its pursuing to get there efficiently, and it might never. Sometimes a cognition doesnt know much about what it's pursuing due to low conscious integration.. sometimes I guess I have to accept it's just because of whatever ignorance puts it in the position of pursuing a thing. We could hardly expect, for instance, a person looking for the key to a box in an object archive, to ask for a list of keys of a particular length, because they wouldn't know how long the key is, nor would they ask for keys with a particular number of peaks, for they could not know how many points it has, they can maybe give us an estimate of its diameter, or its age, but their position as a key-seeker means that there are certain Good Questions that they necessarily cannot know to ask. Their search may seem repetitive, but repetition is not the point. Our job as the archivist is to help them to narrow the list of candidates to the fewest possible.
I should have been more specific: Memorization. (Part of speaking any language fluently is knowing words, how to say them, and what they mean - and knowing it fast.)
1mako yass5y
Aye, I suppose the answer is; many cognitive processes in humans need repetition because they seem to be a bit broken? (Are there theories about why human memory (heck, higher animal memory in general) is so... rough?) Since hypermnesics do exist, my theory is that that used to be a common phenotype, but our consciousness was flawed, it was too much power, we became neurotic, or something, and all evolution could do to sort it out was to cripple it.

My firm conclusion going into this is the why game is about getting the adult to interact.

But because I love layered explanations, I have been mentally preparing for this phase for a long time. My daughter turned one recently, which means I only have a short while longer to wait.

She has no grasp of the trap into which she will toddle!

Yup, similar with my child. Maybe the first time the question is motivated by actual curiosity, but the following 99 repetitions of the same question have to be motivated by something else.

Most questions I get are repetitions of something that was already asked and already answered, and the child actually remembers the answer.

Getting the impression that not even children know how to ask good questions. It's a crucial skill that I've never seen taught, and I know that I don't have it.

I'm in the same room as one of my heroes, I know they're full of important secrets, I know they're full of vital techniques, I could ask them anything, but nothing comes, I just smile, I say, "nice to meet you", I spend all of my energy trying to keep them from seeing my finitude. I come away no bigger than before. I never see them again.

I want to learn to be better than this.

That's an interesting skill. Out of the top of my head, there's no book that comes to mind on how to ask good questions. CFAR also doesn't seem to have a question module as far as I know.

I have 7 kids, so I feel qualified to make some observations on this topic.

Kid #1 asked "why" questions all the time when she was young. As a teenager, her questions have definitely decreased in frequency. This is primarily because all the questions she had as a young child actually got answered. There was a LOT of low-hanging fruit, and she picked it when she was young. She is still curious; her teachers enjoy her genuine interest in learning. It competes with her love of fan fiction, though.

Kid #4 also has some curiosity, and asks questions, though not as often as Kid#1 ever did. He, too, has fewer questions as he ages.

Kids #2, 3, and 5 never actually went through a "why" phase. They ask "Why can't I have that candy bar?" but they don't ask "Why is the sky blue?" They ask practical questions about what, when, where, and they may be quite interested if there's an interesting demonstration of something, but curiosity isn't a big part of their makeup. I have also noticed other people's kids who aren't that curious. People who say that all young kids are curious are basing that on observations of kids who are. Confirmation bias: they aren't looking for kids who aren't curious.

Kid #6 isn't very curious, but she is extremely social and wants to always hear the sound of her voice and mine, so she asks lots of questions and then doesn't listen to the content of the answers. Kid #7 's vocab consists mostly of a handful of food items and "shoes", so her curiosity can't be gauged yet.

So I'd say it's not the case that most young kids are curious and lose that as they grow older. Rather, most young kids are not that curious, and continue not to be curious as adults. The kids who are uber-curious grow up to be adults who are still curious, but whose questions are less incessant because they find answers as they go.

I know of no studies, nor even of good measures of "curiosity" to show whether this is a real effect or not. It could be that the kinds of questions that kids ask are actually low-value, and they (correctly) learn this after a few years. Some decades in, I retain a fair bit of curiosity, and much more ability to seek answers without pestering those who aren't likely to help.

Yeah, fair. Updated the title and OP to be a bit more agnostic about the phenomenon.

(I do think "asking why" isn't necessarily the active ingredient I'm interested in. I think it's quite plausible, as Alicorn notes elsethread, that the "why?" pattern is more like random verbal patter, or serving some other function, but that there's still some other facet of kids having a more direct, gears-y interaction with the world that’s more curious than most adults. This is still the sort of thing I might just be wrong about, but it feels like there's something there).

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Where I live, adults traditionally worry their almost-grown children will be too curious if left unattended. It's not that people lose curiosity by when highschool ends (although they might), it's more like they have learned enough about the general structure of reality and choose what they want. I think.